DON’T TELL. Australia, 2017.Starring Jack Thompson, Aden Young, Sarah West, Rachel Griffiths, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susie Porter, Gyton Grantley, Robert Taylor, Martin Sacks, Robert Coleby, Kiara Freeman, Ashlee Lollback. Directed by Tori Garrett. 110 minutes.
This is a significant film, and important Australian film. It should be seen by all Australians.
The subject, which is most disturbing but which has become part of our lives, part of our consciousness, is institutional sexual abuse. The survivor of the abuse here is a young girl. So many of the stories, especially those from the Royal Commission, are of the abuse of boys, are fewer about girls. So many of the witnesses to the Royal Commission told stories of institutional church abuse. While Catholic stories have been told in the Oscar-winning Spotlight and the television miniseries Devil’s Playground (for thousand and 14), the church in the spotlight here is the Anglican church, the church in Queensland.
The specific setting is in the Queensland city of Toowoomba. The school is the Anglican School for girls, Toowoomba Prep. The time is 1990. There is a civil trial which is at the core of this film which took place in 2001.
The film has been sensitively directed by Tori Garrett. The central character of the film is Lyndal, abused when she was 11 in 1990, at the centre of the case in 2001. She is played extraordinarily persuasive solely by Sarah West, an angry young woman whose life has been severely damaged, whose emotional growth was stunted, educational opportunities lost, experiences of running away from home, alcohol and drug addiction, and the carrying of the burden of her secret.
The screenplay is based on the book by Lyndal’s solicitor, Stephen Roche, he played so well by Aden Young, the Toowoomba lawyer, with a family, a daughter the same age as Lyndal when she was abused. The film opens with his handling the case of a victim, not a survivor because she hangs herself during the proceedings, placing a burden on Roche, emotionally and, of concern to his wife, financially.
Lyndal is having therapy from a counsellor, Joy Connolly, played by Rachel Griffiths. They approach Stephen Roche – but, in the mentality of the time, especially for churches, the expectation is of a financial settlement with confidentiality clauses. Lyndal rejects this and, despite the wariness of the chief barrister, Bob Myers (Jack Thompson at his best), a civil hearing goes ahead in Toowoomba with a very strong-minded lawyer, Dalton (Jacqueline McKenzie at her best) defending the church’s interests, sharing with Stephen Roche the cross examination of a range of witnesses, school staff, Joy Connolly, the previous principal.
The film reminds audiences that in 1990, for most Australians, this kind of abuse was unthinkable. There is a lot of talk about the child and imagination, making up stories… Parents are reluctant to believe the stories or, if they do, very reluctant for them to be made public, especially in court.
Audiences may remember the 2003 resignation of Archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor General of Australia. Some of the reasons for his resignation include his handling of this case when he was Archbishop of Brisbane. He is seen opening a new wing at the school, the emphasis on Toowoomba Prep is a Christian school with Christian values. But there are also sequences, parallel with many meetings that have gone on over the decades with school boards, church councils of all denominations, discussing limits of financial payments, a wariness of going to court, discussing protecting the reputation of school and church and individuals, many defending the abuser as a person of good character and reliable work in the school.
One of the key factors in this case is that the abuser, Kevin Guy, committed suicide, leaving a suicide note naming number of girls. Eventually, the church admitted Kevin Guy’s guilt (and so his suicide note was deemed inadmissible).
At times audiences will find it difficult to identify with Lyndal, her anger, her sullen behaviour, trying to understand and appreciate it. With the flashbacks, which dramatises what Lyndal is remembering during the hearings, and the telling of her story, the audience will come to appreciate much better experience as a little girl (Kiara Freeman), damaged girl and the consequences. At some moments, the flashback memories are very disturbing. But, this is the kind of narrative drama that really brings home some of the realities of the abuse experience.
There have been many newspaper reports and articles, radio interviews, television coverage and interviews, items on social media, but the power of the theatrical and cinema drama can enable an audience to be drawn into the story, to empathise with the characters, to feel appreciate their experiences.
The end of the film has, statements about the characters we have seen and Lyndal’s subsequent history, there is also the terrible reminder that abusers threaten impressionable children that they are not to tell anyone, that this is their secret, or that if they do reveal it, something terrible will final caption happen before the credits says to the survivor: Don’t Listen.
Backlot Studios Released May 18th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.